Magnificat in D, BWV 243

Composed by

Johann Sebastian Bach

1685-1750

Orchestration

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 oboes d'amore, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings, continuo


Enjoy this masterwork by Bach in Concert on April 6th, 2019.

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I. Magnificat anima mea Dominum
II. Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo
III. Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes
IV. Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est
V. Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum
VI. Fecit potentiam in brachio suo dispersit superbos mente cordis sui
VII. Deposuit potentes de sede
VIII. Esurientes implevit bonis
IX. Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae
X. Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros
XI. Gloria Patri, et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
XII. Sicut erat in principio

First performance: 1733, Leipzig.

Among all the areas of human experience and endeavor, religion has perhaps inspired the greatest works of art. Whether it takes shape in the arabesques and mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus or the intricate calligraphy and illuminated details in sacred books, spirituality has motivated countless artists. Music, especially, plays a prominent role in religious imagination, from the hymns of ancient Greece, to the cantorial traditions of Judaism and Islam, to the continuing attempts by composers to capture the “songs of heaven” in earthly music. In composing music for two of the oldest Christian liturgical texts—the Gloria and the Magnificat—Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach stepped onto a well-worn path. While each work bears the unique imprint of its creator, they also share many elements of style and are connected, in their inspiration, to the whole world of sacred art.

The Protestant world for which J. S. Bach wrote his Magnificat is not as different from Vivaldi’s Catholic one as we might think. Although the theology differed, in terms of ritual and music, Lutheran services hewed closely to Catholic forms. Like the Gloria, the Magnificat text comes from the Gospel of Luke—“My soul doth magnify the Lord” (i.46–55)—and it is typically sung at Vespers, the sunset service that was the most musical of the church offices. While he was not a seasoned composer of operas like Vivaldi, Bach’s Magnificat is no less dramatic than the Gloria. Bach made free use of operatic styles in the recitatives and arias while also drawing on older expressive techniques, like word painting. While his predecessor as cantor, Johann Kuhnau, did not tolerate theatricality in church music, Bach was willing to use whatever means were available to him. Just as less orthodox strains of Lutheranism understood the sermon as both instructive and poetic, Bach seems to have kept in mind Luther’s words: “God preached the Gospel through music, too.”

As a sermon in music, Bach’s Magnificat works on two levels. Much like any sermon is grounded in Scripture, Bach’s music is ordered by a harmonic plan. Between the first and last choruses in D major, Bach creates two symmetrical structures—one laid out around the chorus “Omne generationes” and the other around the alto aria “Esurientes.” These two movements stand a perfect fifth apart from each other, forming one of the most “pure” harmonic relations in music. Then, expanding outward from the chorus in the first half and the aria in the second half, each movement mirrors the other, moving apart by the same intervals. The result is a perfectly balanced and coherent structure that magnifies the meaning of the words in musical harmony.

On the other, more poetic level, Bach’s music conveys the meaning of the Latin text line by line, with vivid imagery. From the beginning, Bach uses the full range of harmonic and orchestral color available to him, including techniques he learned from copying scores of Vivaldi’s concertos. The brightness of the D major choruses that frame the work are a legacy of the Baroque trumpets and timpani used in the orchestration, which could only be played comfortably in a few keys. The seemingly perpetual rhythmic energy of the opening chorus is evidence of Vivaldi’s influence and, with the orchestration, it sets a joyful, boisterous tone. The first soprano aria, “Et exultavit” follows in the same vein, although more decorously, with a stately minuet. The extended flourishes in the vocal line, or fioritura, embody the exultation described in the text and also offer a challenge to the soloist. Bach follows the change of tone in the next line, “Quia respexit,” with another aria for soprano, accompanied by the darkly resonant sound of an oboe d’amore. In a bit of word painting, each time the word “humilitatem” (humbled or lowly) is repeated, the soprano voice slowly lowers itself in a musical bow. A similar gesture occurs in the tenor aria, which features a more forceful descent, depicting the way God has “put down the mighty from their seat.” This attention to detail—in terms of sensitivity to both timbre and text—continues in each recitative, aria, and duet. For example, the satisfaction of the alto aria “Esurientes” manifests in the obbligato accompaniment from two flutes, as they surround the alto voice with a shimmering halo and “fill” the space with “good things” in the form of trills and various other ornaments. The chorus “Fetcit potentiam” features more text painting, with the choir dividing from one another, as the proud are “scattered,” with first the tenors, and then each section, turning away from the rest with long, twisting lines. Perhaps the most potent of these musical metaphors is the round of imitation between all the voices in the chorus “Sicut locutus est,” which seems never to end, just as God’s promise to his people stands forever.

Like Luther, Bach considered music a donum Dei (gift of God). While he may not have been the “Fifth Evangelist,” as some have suggested, he was devoted to art as a way of making apparent the beauty of all creation and the faith it should inspire. Bach tells us: “When there is a devotional music, God with his grace is always present.” We know there is beautiful music, with an incredible diversity of harmonies, sounds, and meanings, in every part of the world. May the grace follow.

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